The Cambridge Candle


Issue 2

January/February 1999


Word and Deed:

The Uses of Diversity

By Elie Yarden

How words are reshaped and alter meanings, in use -- shift, extend, and diminish their ranges of common reference -- is worthy of observation. Not least because, if one is observant, the social particularities of the uneven spreading of new currencies may corroborate or refute previously held ideas about attitudes and values of various social groups.

The adolescent mind, seeking some sort of correctness, in need of peer approval, proves highly susceptible to new coinage as an identifier. Take the word cool for instance. As a teen-ager, I was familiar with specific connotations still present in the speech of my students thirty years later. But, earlier, the usage had not been familiar to most adults or my peers in the Urban White Middle Class. Thirty years later -- the 60’s -- the expression had become so diffuse, that when I heard one student say to another, “It’s not cool to be Jewish,” I understood the expressed attitude. The currency had made cool synonymous with in (with the adolescent peer group), synonymous with conforming -- thus negating the earlier rich and specific declaration of difference.

I’m not sure when it started, but diversity is a word that has been troubling my thinking for a while. I’ve noticed that I’m not alone in this. On more than one occasion I’ve noticed an embarrassed discomfort, even an apology for indulging -- a “buzz-word” one speaker called it -- a usage whose currency has spawned a new field of consultancy, already generating hundreds of millions of dollars. Perhaps its use in advertising is one source of consumer suspicion. “Cambridge is diverse.” This -- said and printed with pride -- is supposed to help sell Cambridge. Diversity is a good thing. Good things, things one ought to desire, have their opposites: bad things, things one ought not waste one’s money on. What is the opposite of diversity? Uniformity? Homogeneity? Sameness? Familiarity? Are these bad things?

The conventional knowledge embodied in received ideas has not always held diversity in high esteem. A respectable scholar, a Harvard Professor Emeritus of Government, writing sometime in the late 1920’s, states:

The American Nation. &endash; In 1910 the total population of the continental United States was 92,000,000. Of these, only 50,000,000 were native whites of native parentage; 13,000,000 were foreign-born, 19,000,000 others were of foreign-born or mixed parentage. The Negroes and Indians together numbered about 10,000,000.

. . . .

In the opening years of the present century the country was not yet aroused to the dangers arising from this mixture of unassimilated races. Few voices were raised against admitting not only western Europeans, whose languages and customs were much like those of the United States, but men and women from east and south-east Europe and from western Asia. The only bar to immigration based on race was the prohibition, since 1888, of Chinese immigration and the practical exclusion of Japanese labourers by a “gentlemen’s agreement” with the Japanese government (1907). The undigested load was becoming heavy. [my italics]

This appears as objective knowledge of the highest order in the U. of Chicago: Encylopaedia Britannica, XIV Edition (as late as the 1947 printing). But, by the time I was in school, the digestive remedy had been found. Education!

I remember the day my fifth grade teacher, a pleasant and dedicated teacher who maintained an easy and calm discipline, asked, “Who wrote the Star Spangled Banner?” A few hands shot up. The boy she called on answered, “Francis Scotts Key!” Miss S’s face turned purple with rage as she shouted, “Francis SCOTT KEY -- not Skotski! He was American. NOT POLISH.” Such passionately expressed concern for guarding the proper limits of diversity, if expressed today in similar contexts, might be understood as a concern about how the children would fare on a standardized test. (Query: Who would be helped most by “diversity training,” the teacher, the student, or the standardized test designers?)

Getting back to the point. My education was education for citizenship. The received belief was that diversity undermined that commonality of belief and behavior that made for good citizenship. Conformity, not diversity, was encouraged. Today’s education in Cambridge (if you believe what some councillors believe) is education for getting a good job, a better job, a more secure job. And today’s diverse workplace, the place where you hang your hat when you arrive from the homogenous barracks located nowhere, demands diversity. Because you failed to learn diversity in 12 years of school, despite the job-training orientation of the education, you will now do “diversity training” on the job.

You never learned how to talk to people who did not look like you? You need “diversity training.” You live in a Malden, a Chelsea, or a Lexington of shared understandings, but the jobs are in Cambridge where even intellectual diversity -- the kind most difficult for promoters of diversity to tolerate -- is something you might confront. You watch all those sit-coms on TV, but you are too smart to confuse TV with reality. So you cannot understand why the diversity of people who you meet at work do not behave like the people on the sit-com when you do? You need “diversity training.”

Maybe if you are just stupid, “diversity training” might do a lot for you. Help you get along better with people you work with. Convince you that esprit-de-corps on the job is where it’s at. Show you how to avoid saying the wrong thing. Put you in line for a promotion at your next evaluation. You might even discover that your insufficiently white skin has reminded -- as a result of “diversity training” -- your supervisor why, being late to a meeting because you got pulled over by the “diversity trained” State Cop for no discernible reason, you’re in a bad mood this morning.

Confronted with a problem, beaurocratise the language of examining it. Hence consultancies, “studies,” new fields for professional expertise, testing and evaluation of results. This is in the time-honored tradition of when you are afraid to touch something, let alone do anything about it, appoint a Committee! Hire a consultant! Check first to make sure that the last committee appointed to deal with the same problem is defunct in memory. Make sure the consultant you hire will not tell you more, or other, than what you’ve decided you want to know. Hire the one you hired last time. Give him a stake in continuing to please you.

The surplus Phd’s in Social Psychology, Cultural Anthropology, Sociology, and Marketing (I’m sure someplace is giving a Phd in Marketing) need jobs, and there are insufficient University professorships. Hence “diversity training." But what does a diverse City like Cambridge with a diverse work force like Cambridge, and a fine school system like Cambridge want with diversity training. It may be that the City Manager’s office requires training in compliance with Equal Employment Opportunity, Affirmative Action, and the like, as security in coping with lawsuits by employees who are denied advancement. Money well spent, probably cheaper than remedying the faults. It could get very expensive trying to find Commercial Real Estate lords or even small contractors who are African American businessmen. In what health club would you casually get to meet them?

But when the Mayor of the City, and others, declare an initiative on race and class and invite the participation of people who live here, concerned citizens who wish to help each other, I and other citizens volunteer to study, define and do something about the problems. Here we were getting ourselves worked up to do something only to read in the papers about an appropriation of $150,000 for hiring outside consultants, presumably experts in what has to be done to us. So far have standards of civic life degenerated, that the Mayor of the City turns to the Managed Citizenship industry for political health care. Face it. The money would be far better spent in helping prevent two or three American families of color from being forced out of Cambridge.

Sweet are the uses of Diversity?

1999 © Cambridge Newsgroup, Inc. All rights reserved.